Travelers, schools, shelters feel the record cold

kjahner@newsobserver.comJanuary 10, 2014 

  • White-flag conditions

    These Raleigh homeless shelters are operating under white-flag conditions, meaning all can enter:

    • South Wilmington Street Shelter, 1420 S. Wilmington St.

    • The Healing Place of Wake County, 3310 Glen Royal Road

    • Raleigh Rescue Mission, 314 E. Hargett St.

    • Salvation Army, 1863 Capital Blvd.

  • Delayed classes

    All of the Triangle’s school systems – Wake, Durham, Johnston, Chatham, Orange and Chapel Hill-Carrboro – are operating on a two-hour delay Tuesday morning.

    Public schools in Franklin, Harnett, Person, Lee, Moore and Cumberland counties also will be delayed by two hours.

The “polar vortex” that gripped the Triangle Tuesday, set a record low temperature for the day almost as soon as the clock ticked past midnight. As the day progressed the cold caused problems across the Triangle, Garner included.

More than 3,000 Triangle homes were without electrical power early Tuesday morning -- including hundreds in Garner. Schools delayed their opening bells. Some commuters discovered that their cars wouldn’t start because their batteries were too cold. Dozens of flights were canceled or delayed at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

The mercury sank to 9 degrees at RDU at 6 a.m. and stayed there until beginning to creep up after 8 a.m. and reaching 11 degrees by 9 a.m., heading for highs predicted to be in the low to mid 20s across the region.

“The good news for us is that it didn't stick around,” said Don Swhwenneker, WTVD meteorologist. “We've got almost a 10-degree increase each day coming over the next five days, and by the weekend we'll be in the 60s.”

The skies were clear Tuesday morning, but flights were delayed or canceled for travelers trying to get in and out of Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

The problems were all over the map, and all airlines were affected. Flight cancelations and delays struck passengers of all the major airlines. The delays began to dwindle by late morning.

“The cold weather here is not affecting our flights – it’s the ripple effect from stuff elsewhere,” RDU spokesman Andrew Sawyer said at 10:40 a.m. “Right now we’re seeing a lot of flights that are going out on time. It looks like it’s on the rebound.”

The cold, accompanied by winds gusting to 20 mph or more overnight, brought power outages right when they are most painful for residents.

The Garner area had outages between the hours of 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. Tuesday that affected about 180 customers, according to Duke Energy Progress outage maps. Most of those outages centered on the southwest side of town, near the Eagle Ridge and Garner Country Club golf courses.

Just north of the golf courses on the west side of Garner, another three outages shortly after noon left another 479 customers without power.

“When you have record lows of more than a century, it’s bound to be something that puts a stress on the sytem,” Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert said.

Cuthbert said it’s only down into the teens and single digets for prolonged periods that a lot of the equipment starts to have problems, She said that during a cold spell like Tuesdays customers would help by reducing electricity use to place minimal strain on the grid.

Heating and plumbing services also saw an uptick in activity in Garner. Lee Carroll of Carroll Service Company in Garner -- which services heating and air conditioning -- said his volume Tuesday roughly tripled.

“If there was something wrong (with someone’s heating), it showed up today,” Carroll said.

Garner could have seen more damage, though. In Raleigh, police were directing traffic away from the intersection of Sutton and Smallwood drives near Broughton High School after an apparent water-main break began to damage the roadway.

The last time the Triangle felt any air as cold as 9 degrees was Jan. 29, 2000 – a freezing that came with 20 inches of snow still on the ground, remnants of a blizzard. This time, the cold air alone is the shocker, with clear skies expected.

Still, local school officials were being wary. All Triangle systems – Wake, Durham, Johnston, Chatham, Orange and Chapel Hill-Carrboro – opened two hours late Tuesday. The move was taken as a precaution, allowing time for administrators to check and fix damage to buses and heating systems before kids climb aboard.

“These types of temperatures tend to take a toll on our buses,” said Renee McCoy, spokeswoman for Wake County schools. “There’s an opportunity for batteries to be dead. We also have water in our brake fluid lines.”

Schoolchildren standing on corners in sub-freezing weather also are a concern

The vortex is actually a swirling dome of frigid air, parked over Canada and the Great Lakes, Hohmann said. But when upper winds are just right, the vortex sags to the south and pours arctic air all the way to Florida.

Homeless shelters in the Triangle are operating under white-flag conditions, meaning all can enter when temperatures fall below freezing.

“We’re going to be putting out some mats tonight,” said Leslie Millett, spokeswoman for the Raleigh Rescue Mission, on Monday.

Raleigh proved to be the only free option for Garner’s homeless, as the town does not have facilities availible to those without shelter. This week Home Ministries of the Garner United Methodist Church advised homeless people it sees regularly on Saturdays -- they shower, shave, get some basic medical treatment there -- to seek shelter Monday night and Tuesday.

“We just don’t have the facilities for it, unfortunately,” church volunteer Larry Reynolds said.

Volunteers with Church in the Woods have been passing out sleeping bags and blankets to many homeless people who live in camps, said Alice McGee, pastor. Some will find temporary shelter with friends. Others will pool money and sleep 10 to a motel room. Some will simply stay put.

The Raleigh church, which serves a large homeless population, recently received a set of warm “mummy” sleeping bags, which cover the head, McGee said.

“I knew it was going to be a cold winter with God sending us these mummy bags,” she said. However, the church still needs donated gloves.

Milder recent winters

Before 2000, single-digit temperatures were more common here. All the other days in January have lower record lows than today’s 15-degree record – making it low-hanging fruit for a modern storm system.

The all-time low for the region is 9 degrees below zero, set in 1985. But recent, less-extreme years have made us wimps.

A 9-degree low may seem scarce in the Triangle, as rare as yeti. The good news is that this will be a quick-hit freeze.

Warmer temperatures are expected to return Wednesday and continue into the 60s by the weekend.

But it was cold enough Tuesday that even fur-covered Arctic mammals are laying low. Even the N.C. Zoo in Asheboro, which just added a new polar bear exhibit, will be closed.

Jahner: 919-829-4822

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